Regenerative Health Center Awarded $10 Million

Thanks to advances in health care over the last half century, people today are less likely to die suddenly from an acute condition, like a massive heart attack, than they are from chronic diseases that hang around the body for years, like diabetes, cancer or congestive heart disease.

Now, the University of Florida is building a state-of-the art bioprocessing facility to help fight these chronic diseases. With a $10 million state grant, the UF Center of Excellence in Regenerative Health Biotechnology (CERHB) will become a national hub for regenerative health technologies. Regenerative technologies use advances in gene therapy and adult stem cell therapy to develop treatment and cures for chronic diseases.

Among the greatest challenges remaining to widespread implementation of these therapies is the understanding of and ability to control gene expression, or “epigenetics.” Also, product development resulting from accelerated research in epigenetics is slowed by two major obstacles — an international shortage of bioprocessing facilities and a shortage of trained personnel to operate these facilities.

CERHB will address these problems by creating a home for both basic and applied biotech research. The facility will provide academic researchers and biotechnology companies a steady supply of the gene therapy microbes and adult stem cells they need for their work.

The University of Florida Research Foundation has committed $3.6 million to purchase an existing building in the university’s research park for the facility, which will be fully operational within 18 months of the purchase.

The state grant, provided through the Florida Technology Development Act passed last year by the legislature, will fund renovation and equipment. The facility will employ nearly 150 people, and a workforce training program will produce about 25 employees per year for the biotech industry. Numerous regional biotech companies have committed to using this facility, ensuring sufficient revenue to support its ongoing operation and future development.

The university already has world-class programs in adult stem cell biology and gene therapy, with faculty in these areas receiving more than $75 million in grants. To enhance this strength, the university has also committed $6.7 million over the next five years to establish three new faculty research positions in epigenetics and two more senior faculty positions in bioprocess engineering.

Sheldon Schuster,

by Joseph Kays

Deep-Sea Basalt Offers Clues to CO2

UF geology Professor Michael Perfit boarding the
Alvin submersible

By examining volcanic rocks retrieved from deep in the ocean, scientists have found they can estimate the carbon dioxide stored beneath much of the Earth’s surface — a development that could enhance understanding of how volcanoes affect climate.

The research by University of Florida scientists and others was reported in the journal Nature. Scientists examined chunks of basalt, a type of volcanic rock formed when lava cools, from 12,000 feet below the Pacific Ocean along a massive geographical formation called the mid-ocean ridge. The scientists discovered in these basalts traces of carbon dioxide and other compounds that originated deep within the Earth’s mantle, the source of most volcanic activity. Because compounds from this inaccessible region had never been found so well preserved, the rocks gave scientists a rare peek at what the mantle consists of — and what it might spew into the atmosphere through volcanoes.

“Most lava erupts at the surface and has lost its gases. From a geochemist’s point of view, you need to know what the composition of the mantle really is,” said Mike Perfit, a UF geology professor and co-author of the Nature paper. “This kind of data might be useful in talking about the contribution of the mantle to the atmosphere and hydrosphere and how those concentrations might affect the climate.”

Carbon dioxide is the leading “greenhouse gas” that traps heat and contributes to warming of the Earth. Scientists have long speculated volcanic eruptions can spew enough of this and other gases into the atmosphere to cause significant warming trends — changes so massive they may even spur mass extinctions. By giving scientists an idea of how much carbon dioxide lies under the Earth, the basalt may help answer this question, Perfit said.

When magma rises to the Earth’s surface and erupts as lava flows, Perfit said, it typically “de-gasses.” As the Earth’s pressure on the lava declines, the amount of volatile compounds that become gases at the surface rapidly decreases, a bit like popping open a soft drink and releasing the carbon dioxide bubbles. As a result, carbon dioxide, water, sulfur dioxide, helium, chlorine and other “volatiles” are barely present in most basalt, making it difficult for geologists to figure out the amounts and proportions of these compounds in the mantle.

The deep ocean, however, is a unique environment. There, the water is so cold and the pressure so intense that it may keep the volatiles confined in the lava, known as magma, when it first erupts and hardens. As a result, geologists have seen deep-sea geological formations such as so-called “pillow flows” as one of their best hopes for investigating the mantle question.

Perfit and colleague Dan Fornari of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute were among the scientists who dived in the manned deep-water submersible “Alvin” to probe a site a few hundred miles west of the Mexican coast. The area, a deep part of the mid-ocean ridge known as the Siqueiros Transform fault, was known to experience underwater eruptions, which is why the scientists chose it for their investigation. Perfit returned with a small load of golf ball- to basketball-sized pieces of basalt from the sea floor, where the water pressure was 350 times greater than at the surface.

This basalt was not only bubble-free, indicating that the volatile compounds remained in the lava but it also was very recently formed, making it an ideal study candidate. Scientists discovered that small crystals in the rock called olivines contained tiny bits of pure magma. Using newly developed technology that can analyze very small areas, researchers measured the volatiles in this magma.

If the basalts Alvin returned to the surface are typical of other mid-ocean ridge basalts, they could help determine the rate at which Earth’s belowground carbon dioxide is supplied to the atmosphere through volcanoes.

Mike Perfit,

Aaron Hoover

Study Finds Schools Boost Calories To Raise Scores

Faced with ever-increasing pressure to boost state-mandated test scores, some school districts may be seeking an advantage by pumping up their pupils with extra calories from junk food, a study conducted at the University of Florida suggests.

The study, published in the National Bureau of Economic Research’s online working paper series, found that on test days many districts fed students high-energy foods with low nutritional value because the empty calories give students a short-term mental lift much like carbohydrate loading energizes athletes, said
David Figlio, a UF economist whose research focuses on the design and evaluation of education and
social policy.

“We find significant evidence that school districts, particularly those threatened with at least one failing or sanctioned school, respond by giving students more empty calories on testing days,” said Figlio, who also is a faculty research fellow for the National Bureau of Economic Research. “These are calories found by nutritionists to have substantial very short-term cognitive effects, but no long-term benefits.”

Studies have shown that students perform better at academic tasks in the several hours following a large dose of glucose or empty calories, which improves knowledge or cognitive ability in addition to
boosting energy.

Figlio and Joshua Winicki, an economist with the American Institutes for Research, did a detailed study of elementary school lunch menus from 23 randomly selected school districts in Virginia during the 1999-2000 school year, comparing nutritional content on days of state-mandated tests with that of non-test dates. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

In districts with at least one school in danger of facing sanctions, school lunches averaged 863 calories during the testing period, compared with 761 calories before and 745 calories after, Figlio said.

Despite the calorie boost, however, the nutritional content of the food was lower on test days, he said. Vitamin C averaged 34 milligrams during the testing period as opposed to 37 milligrams before and 44 milligrams after the test. Vitamin A averaged 531 retinol equivalents, or RE, during testing, but 615 RE before and 672 RE afterward. The dietary changes were subtle but may include corn dogs instead of hot dogs or different types of pizza, he said.

The empty-calorie approach seems to work in improving test scores — at least in the short run. Among schools threatened with sanctions, those that increased calories the most during test days saw the largest gains in student achievement, he said.

Figlio said he doubts that schools increase calorie content because they want to reward students with their favorite foods for the stress they endure on test days.

According to one school district in the sample, elementary students’ favorite meals, as measured by sales, are pizza, cheeseburgers and tacos. Yet schools in the sample served these items on only 35 percent of testing days, compared with 34 percent of non-testing days, he said.

David Figlio,

Cathy Keen

Horse Bone A Model For Aircraft Structures

The horse, a classic model of grace and speed on land, is now an unlikely source of inspiration for more efficient flight.

So says a group of University of Florida engineers who have recreated part of a unique bone in the horse’s leg with an eye toward lighter, stronger materials for planes and spacecraft.

The third metacarpus bone in the horse’s leg supports much of the force conveyed as the animal moves. One side of the cucumber-sized bone has a pea-sized hole where blood vessels enter the bone. Holes naturally weaken structures, causing them to break more easily than solid structures when pressure is applied. Yet while the third metacarpus does fracture, particularly in racehorses, it doesn’t break near the hole — not even when the bone is subjected to laboratory stress tests.

UF engineering researchers think they’ve figured out why — and they’ve built and are testing a plate that mimics the bone’s uncanny strength in a form potentially useful for airplanes and spacecraft.

“Holes are a classic source of failure in engineered structures, but nature has found a way around that in this bone,” said Andrew Rapoff, an assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering and the lead researcher on the project. “We’re mimicking nature’s solution.”

The engineers analyzed the structure of the horse bone around its hole — or foramen — with microscopy and microradiography, techniques that render the details of its microscopic composition.

The upshot of their analyses: The bone was configured in such a way that it pushed the highest stresses away from the foramen into a region of higher strength.

The engineers used their analyses and computer models to create a “biomimetic plate,” with a hole surrounded by several different grades of polyur- ethane foam to mimic the compositional structure of the bone near the foramen.

The researchers tested the plate by placing it across two upright pillars and weighing it down, comparing the results with those from an identical test of a plate with a drilled hole without the foam stabilizer. It took twice the weight to break the biomimetic plate. Moreover, when it did finally break, the fracture did not go through the hole as occurred with the plate with the drilled hole.

Andrew Rapoff,

Aaron Hoover

Against All Odds, Plutonium Is Latest Superconductor

Scientists have discovered superconductivity in a most unlikely place: the highly radioactive element used to make nuclear weapons.

In an article in the journal Nature, a group of researchers, including a University of Florida physicist, report discovering a plutonium-based electrical superconductor. The finding is significant because plutonium, the active ingredient in atomic bombs, has physical properties that should prevent it from behaving as a superconductor – suggesting current theories about this phenomenon may not apply to this element.

“This is anomalous superconductivity, which is fascinating,” said Gregory Stewart, a UF physics professor and contributing author of the paper.

Superconductors conduct electricity without any resistance. Discovered in the early 20th century, the first ones functioned only at extremely cold temperatures of a few degrees Kelvin, or about 450 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

Stewart said John Sarrao, the lead author on the Nature paper, and his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico discovered the plutonium compound superconducted while they were measuring the magnetic behavior. To their surprise, a probe of the material’s magnetic properties revealed diamagnetic, or “anti-magnetic” behavior, a telltale indicator of superconductivity, he said. That was unexpected because plutonium very often forms compounds that are highly magnetic; never before had a compound containing plutonium been found to be superconducting.

“It would be like finding an excellent material for building skyscrapers from a new recipe for Jell-O,” Stewart said. “You just wouldn’t expect it.”

More surprising still, the plutonium did not begin superconducting at 1 or 2 degrees Kelvin, which one might expect for a material that was not very superconductive. Instead, it began superconducting at 18 Kelvin, or about minus 427 degrees Fahrenheit.

Gregory Stewart,

Aaron Hoover

Plants May Help Detect Bomb Residue

Microbiology and cell science Professors Lonnie Ingram (left) and Bill Gurley demonstrate how genetically modified bacteria and plants sprayed on contaminated sites can produce fluorescent pigments that show the presence of TNT and other types of pollution

To detect toxic explosive residues in the soil —including unexploded artillery shells and other weapons — University of Florida researchers are using genetic engineering to modify microbes and plants that can be used as “biosensors.”

The three-year research project, supported by a $2.3 million contract from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, will help clean up thousands of acres of land that have been used for military training in the United States and abroad.

“Many of these areas are far too vast for current remediation technologies, and new methods must be found to accurately identify localized areas of contamination for a more focused cleanup effort,” said Lonnie Ingram, a professor of microbiology and cell science with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. He leads a five-member faculty team working on the defense contract.

“Most of these military training areas are contaminated with toxic explosive residues and unexploded ordnance,” Ingram said. “Before they can be cleaned up and returned to public use, methods must be developed to map or identify the problem areas for cleaning.”

Of equal importance, he said, the research will identify clean regions that do not contain explosive residues or materials. Clearly identifying areas that pose no danger to people, animals, plants or the environment will greatly reduce costs.

Ingram said different microbial and plant biosensors also could be developed for use in monitoring other types of environmental pollution, such as pesticide or chemical contamination.
The goal is to develop microbes and plants that can be used as sensitive biosensors for the presence of explosive compounds such as TNT and their breakdown products in the soil.

“Bacteria and plants will be genetically engineered to produce visible responses to the presence of TNT and their degradation products in the soil,” Ingram said.

“For example, we are developing sentinel bacteria that can be sprayed on contaminated sites and will produce fluorescent pigments — painting the soil surface with colors that show the presence of explosive chemicals,” he said. “Contaminated areas could then be mapped and quantified by aerial surveillance or satellite.”

Similarly, the UF team will genetically modify plants so they will change in pigmentation as a response to soil contamination. The response system in plants will incorporate sensors initially developed in bacteria.

“Unlike bacteria that respond primarily to surface contamination, plant roots penetrating the soil should provide a more-sensitive measure of buried materials,” Ingram said. “Together, the sentinel bacteria and plant systems should provide effective new tools to help remediate military lands.”

Lonnie Ingram,

Chuck Woods

$3 Million Gift To Create Institute For Biodiversity

The University of Florida has received a $3 million gift aimed at making it an international leader in the study of biodiversity and the environment, a field that will play an increasingly important role in agriculture and other areas as Earth becomes more crowded and people continue to deplete its natural resources.

The gift, from the Minnesota-based William W. McGuire and Nadine M. McGuire Family Foundation, will establish a new program to be named the McGuire Institute for Biodiversity and the Environment. Located within the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus, the first-of-its-kind institute will focus on the ecological importance of biodiversity and keeping use of the natural environment in balance with human needs by establishing an endowment to support this field of study.

“Biodiversity, the extraordinary array of plant and animal species that keeps every part of our world functioning, is being recognized as an extremely important issue through this gift,” said Thomas C. Emmel, a professor of zoology and director of UF’s Division of Lepidoptera Research who also directs the McGuire Center in which the institute will be located. “This new institute will marshal incredible resources and talents at UF to help lead us toward a more sustainable future regarding ecology and the environment, and help us solve some of the world’s most pressing problems before it is too late.”

Tom Emmel,

Paul Ramey

Fuel-Cell Buses Quiet Compared with Diesels

Reduced air pollution and increased energy independence may not be the only advantages of the experimental fuel cells the federal government hopes will replace internal combustion engines.

Unlike their roaring diesel counterparts, fuel cell-powered buses also are remarkably quiet, according to research findings by University of Florida engineers published in the Journal of Sound and Vibration.

A team of UF mechanical engineering faculty and students compared the noise produced by conventional diesel buses to the noise generated by an experimental fuel-cell bus owned by the university. The result: The fuel-cell bus was at least nine decibels quieter than the quietest diesel bus — akin to the difference between a conversation and a busy machine shop, as one researcher put it.

“Really, the only noise comes from the fans and pumps and blowers and things that are part of the fuel-cell system or part of the bus, like the air conditioning compressor,” said Vernon Roan, a professor of mechanical engineering and member of the team. “All of that noise combined is still pretty quiet compared to a diesel engine.”

Roan said there are close to 75,000 municipal transit diesel buses nationwide. Replacing them would result not only in less air pollution, but also less noise pollution, something many pedestrians and bus riders alike would find welcome, he said.

Fuel cells typically combine hydrogen and oxygen in a nearly pollution-free chemical reaction that produces energy. With some types of fuel cells, the only emissions are water and heat.

The team measured noise levels at several locations inside and outside the bus and compared the results to similar measurements from three diesel buses. The fuel-cell bus was consistently and significantly quieter. For example, from a distance of 2.5 meters, or about 8 feet, it produced 73 decibels compared to 82, 84 and 87 decibels for the diesel buses.

A 50-decibel noise is just audible, while 90 decibels is considered very loud. So the gap between 73 and 82 decibels is “huge,” Roan said.

Vernon Roan,

Aaron Hoover

Magnets May Overcome Gene Therapy Hurdle

The average person’s heart pumps about a gallon of blood per minute, a rate that can easily triple or quadruple during exercise.

The rapid flow of blood through the body is a major roadblock to the use of gene therapy to cure diseases. When injected into the blood, vector viruses — which carry corrective genes — tend to be carried past the target organ or tissue rather than sticking to it, like grains of sand moving past stones in a fast-flowing river.

Now, University of Florida gene therapy and biomedical engineering researchers have demonstrated a novel approach to the problem. In an article in the journal Molecular Therapy, they report attaching the adeno-associated virus, a widely used gene carrier, to the surface of tiny manufactured balls known as microspheres, each containing a miniscule particle of iron oxide.

Using a magnet placed under culture dishes, the researchers were able to coax large amounts of the microspheres to target areas of the cultures. In related experiments in mice, the researchers showed the microspheres clung to cells or organs longer than the virus alone did.

The procedure could someday evolve into a treatment that would enable doctors to guide corrective gene-containing microspheres injected into a patient with magnets placed outside the skin.

“By packaging the virus with the microsphere, we both guided it to the targeted area and got it to stick there,” said Barry Byrne, the lead researcher and a pediatric cardiologist with the UF College of Medicine who is affiliated with the UF Genetics Institute.

Byrne and Cathryn Mah, an assistant research professor in the department of pediatrics, collaborated on the project with UF colleagues in pharmaceutics, genetics, and materials science and engineering. The effort, partially funded by the Whitaker Foundation, is part of UF’s growing biomedical engineering initiative involving a wide range of medical and engineering researchers.

Barry Byrne,


Aaron Hoover

UF Leads Research Institute At Kennedy Space Center

The University of Florida will lead a group of more than 20 universities in a new research institute whose aim will be to improve the safety and lower the costs of launching spacecraft.

The Spaceport Research and Technology Institute is being created as part of a broader NASA effort to develop advanced spaceport technologies and systems. The space agency awarded a $220 million contract to Maryland-based ASRC Aerospace Corp. to develop the systems for manned and unmanned spacecraft in conjunction with UF and its academic partners. The venture was selected from seven applicants to the NASA research program, which was in the works before the Columbia tragedy.

The institute’s research activities will be based at Kennedy Space Center, where it will join a previously established UF center devoted to developing next-generation onboard life-support systems.

“This institute cements UF’s permanent presence at Kennedy,” said Win Phillips, UF vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School. “Our work there will help NASA address some of its most critical challenges, while providing exciting and important applied research opportunities for university scientists, engineers and graduate students.”

The institute’s research will focus on developing more efficient, more economical and safer launch technologies, said Peggy Evanich, UF’s director of space research programs. Evanich will serve as interim director while a search for a permanent director is conducted. For the immediate future, scientists will emphasize improving shuttle and unmanned rocket launch operations at Kennedy and may work with other U.S. spaceports.

“This covers all the areas related to operating a spaceport — whether on Earth or the moon or even Mars,” Evanich said. “For example, for a base on Mars, we’d like to know how to use the Martian environment to generate oxygen for the trip back to Earth.”

The research will focus broadly on improving components such as rocket fuel systems, creating better structures and materials, and better command and control systems. It also will seek to improve the safety and efficiency of launches.

The institute, which is anticipated to include at least 24 universities nationwide, is expected to receive funding annually from NASA’s contract with ASRC Aerospace. The other institutions involved include Florida State University, the University of Central Florida, the University of Miami, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins University. NASA’s contract with the company extends though 2008 and may be renewed annually for an additional five years, for a total of $600 million possible toward the effort.

Mike O’Neal, manager of university research and development at Kennedy’s Strategic Technology Formulation Office, said NASA hopes to find ways to improve numerous methods and techniques currently used during vehicle processing, launch and landing.

Prior to each space shuttle launch, for example, the space agency pumps liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuel into the shuttle through vacuum-insulated ground pipes to minimize propellant boil-off, he said. These “vacuum jackets” are expensive to build and maintain, and NASA would like to find a cheaper but equally effective alternative insulation, he said.

Also, O’Neal said, the shuttle and the fleet of expendable rockets create a tremendous amount of vibration and acoustic shock at launch. To avoid any possibility of resulting structural failure, engineers have added extra reinforcement to their designs. If researchers could accurately measure and model the vibration and acoustic shock forces, they might be able to engineer lighter and less expensive vehicle designs to launch, he said.

“The amount of weight you have to put into orbit is really key to the cost,” he said. “So, modeling of that environment is critical.”

O’Neal said he expects the universities participating in the project to focus on applying ideas and technologies from their own labs as well as from their national counterparts — for example, the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories.

“We’d like assistance with how we can leverage that research for good technologies that we can use in the spaceport,” he said.

The other UF research program at Kennedy is the Center for Space Agriculture and Biotechnology Research and Education, launched last year. Directed by Robert Ferl, a professor of horticultural sciences, the program seeks to develop plant-based techniques to create regenerative life-support systems in space.

Peggy Evanich,

Aaron Hoover

Contact Lens Eyes as Drug Delivery Method

People suffering from glaucoma or other eye diseases could one day replace eye drops with drug-laden contact lenses that deliver medication precisely when and where it is needed.

University of Florida researchers have developed soft contact lenses that contain tiny drug-filled particles capable of releasing medications slowly and steadily into the eye. Such lenses would have significant advantages over eye drops, which convey only a small portion of their drugs to the eye while allowing the rest to enter the bloodstream and other tissues where they can cause harmful side effects, said Anuj Chauhan, a UF assistant professor of chemical engineering.

Chauhan and UF chemical engineering doctoral student Derya Gulsen presented their findings at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting.

“As soon as you apply eye drops, they quickly mix with tears and a significant portion drains into the nasal cavity and eventually gets absorbed into the bloodstream,” Chauhan said. “There clearly is a need for drug-delivery systems that can solve this problem, and we believe our system provides one potential solution.”

Millions of Americans suffer from cataracts, glaucoma and other eye diseases. Although surgery is a possibility in some cases, these diseases often are treated with drops packed with powerful drugs. Some of this medication reaches its target, but the majority winds up in the body, Chauhan said.

Chauhan and Gulsen developed a technique to encapsulate a test drug in tiny “nanoparticles” — each measuring 50 nanometers, or 50 billionths of a meter. They mixed these oil-based particles into the same material used to make commercial contact lenses and fashioned large prototype lenses with characteristics similar to manufactured ones.

The drug particles are so small they don’t scatter light, so they don’t cloud the finished lenses, Chauhan said. And because the lenses would be suspended in the moist environment of the eye, the drug would in theory seep out slowly.

The drug-laden nanoparticles not only provide slow release, but they also distribute the drug into the thin area sandwiched between the eye and the contact lens. Chauhan predicted this would mean far less drug would escape into the tears, down through the nasal cavity and into the body, Chauhan said.

Chauhan said in theory the lenses would be disposable, with patients changing them for new lenses every couple of weeks, as is currently done with disposable lenses. The drug-infused lenses are made of the same material as regular contact lenses, so he does not expect their cost to be prohibitive. The next step in his research, he said, is to learn more about how to vary the rate or timing of drug delivery, which could be done through changing the size or concentration of the nanoparticles.

Anuj Chauhan, (352) 392-2592,

Aaron Hoover

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